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Covid-19: University Students

Volume 807: debated on Monday 16 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on the spread of Covid-19 of students returning to their universities.

My Lords, the virus has the potential to affect all corners of society and we all have a role to play in reducing the risk of transmission. The Government have provided detailed guidance on reopening to the higher education sector, informed by SAGE, and have ensured that universities have outbreak plans, have bolstered testing provision, and are planning for the end of term and the return of students in January. We are keeping the position under review and are monitoring developments closely.

The Minister will be aware of the outbreak of Covid cases in universities and colleges across the UK, with students having to self-isolate, often in very difficult circumstances. Can he give an assurance that there will be sufficient testing capacity for students returning home for Christmas? What plans do the Government have for testing every student again before they return to their colleges and universities in January so that they are kept safe, as well as those in the communities in which they live?

My Lords, we have established walk-through testing sites and deployed mobile test sites so that almost all universities are within 1.5 miles of a testing site. This means that staff and students alike will have access to tests if they develop symptoms. As part of our ongoing work, we have also started a series of pilots on lateral flow tests and are working with the Department of Health and Social Care to target mass asymptomatic testing at universities. The ambition is to work with universities to build testing provision, including through the use of lateral flow devices.

My Lords, the advice of the SAGE committee in September was that unless teaching in colleges and universities was moved online, Covid outbreaks in them would be inevitable. Given what has transpired there is now the likelihood that, after Christmas, many students will remain at home. Can the Government assure these students that they will not be bound by contracts for accommodation that they do not need, and will they also indemnify universities against the claims of companies that have provided new-build student accommodation for rents that they have been guaranteed?

My Lords, throughout the pandemic we have been working closely with universities to make sure that they have plans in place locally, shared with local directors of public health, to manage the specific risks in their area. We have been keen to keep universities open so that students and young people are not putting their lives on hold or finding that their education is disrupted. We are therefore keen for face-to-face teaching to continue as much as possible. Universities have risen to the challenge by providing a blend of online teaching and of course by working closely with students on accommodation and other issues.

My Lords, last week, 192 academics from the University of Manchester wrote to the vice-chancellor saying that they were ashamed and humiliated at the erection of a metal fence literally locking students into their residences. The student slogan said it all: “Paid, Blamed, Caged.” This incident might be extreme, but it is not a one-off. Will the Minister explain to vice-chancellors that such invasive and heavy-handed security measures are not necessary when Covid is not a lethal risk to the lives of students? I also draw the attention of noble Lords to a letter from a student, Harry Butcher, to the UCU noting the limitations of low-quality online teaching. He says

“how impossibly demotivating it is to be educated in front of a laptop; most likely in the same room that you sleep … sat on a chair half a metre from your bed.”

Can the Minister encourage more face-to-face teaching, because it is both safe and necessary?

On the first question put by the noble Baroness, I saw the occurrence at Manchester University, but that was a decision made by the university and was not encouraged in government guidance. I understand that the university is undertaking an inquiry of its own on the decision that it took and the communications around it. That will be reported by the end of this month so that it can learn the lessons it needs to. On face-to-face teaching, the Government’s expectation is that high-quality education should be maintained. Moving delivery online does not automatically mean that the quality of the provision is inferior, but we are keen to see face-to-face teaching, particularly in those subjects where that is important. The Office for Students has a role in monitoring this. It is keeping the matter under active review and, if it has any concerns, it can investigate further.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House to my relevant interests as set out in the register. Could my noble friend update the House on the progress of the plans for the mass testing of students in readiness for the travel window proposed for early December? What is the Government’s thinking on the arrangements that will be put in place for the return of students to universities in the new year?

On 7 November, my honourable friend the Universities Minister wrote to the universities with details on the mass testing programme. We are working closely with the sector on that, targeting mass testing at universities based on factors such as the local prevalence of Covid-19 and the proportion of high-risk students at their institutions.

My Lords, as the chair of a university governing body, I pay my own tribute to the staff and students in universities who are adapting so well to these exceptionally difficult conditions, and I welcome the Christmas travel window guidance. But urgent guidance is needed so that staff and students are able to return after Christmas, to ensure minimum disruption of the new term. When will that be available?

My honourable friend also wrote this week to universities and to students about the plans for returning home for Christmas at the end of term. The noble Lord is absolutely right that people will want a bit of certainty about the resumption of education in January. Our hope is to be able to provide that guidance before the end of term so that everyone knows the situation going into the Christmas holidays. But of course, like everything, that will depend on developments in the virus and the pandemic.

My Lords, rolling out mass testing in time for the proposed travel window, even in a targeted manner, is an enormous undertaking, so universities are naturally keen to understand the details. For example, will students be required to have two negative tests, as in Scotland, before being cleared to travel, or will one suffice? Also, will there be any liability on universities?

My Lords, we are working closely with universities in line with the guidance that my honourable friend the Universities Minister has released. We are also working with the devolved Administrations and the Department of Health and Social Care. The guidance for students in England is that only one negative test is required.

My Lords, what arrangements are the Government advising universities to carry out in the way of practical and mental health matters for students isolating at university, including over the Christmas period? Student Space may be able to advise on who is around, but the right people, not just fellow students, need to be close by in the first place.

The noble Earl is absolutely right to point to the problems that many students are facing in mental health and well-being. Student Space, with funding from the Office for Students, is helping, while higher education providers can also access the £256 million-worth of funding for this academic year that is to go towards student hardship funds and to provide support for the mental health of those affected by the pandemic.

My Lords, it has been tragic to hear the stories of so many Covid outbreaks at universities, which have clearly impacted on learning and on students’ mental health. Universities were asked to plan for a return based on a fully functioning test, track and trace programme, which did not happen. Can we be assured that the lateral flow devices will be available to universities? How many of them will need to be provided? What steps will the Government take to ensure a safe return in January, with a staggered returning system? Will students require a testing service in the January period?

My Lords, part of our work is developing new testing technology. We have already started a series of pilots on lateral flow tests and are working with universities and the Department of Health and Social Care to roll them out. We welcome the efforts of universities to develop their own testing, which have shown the sort of innovation that we would expect from universities.

My Lords, I offer a local government slant. How much consultation was done with local authorities before the decision was made to take the “business as near to normal as possible” approach? Were there any financial considerations given to those towns and cities that rely heavily on university students as part of their local economies, as they will surely be affected?

We have required universities to have plans in place which have been signed off by their local directors of public health. This has obviously involved liaison with local authorities, local representatives and health professionals in their local areas.